War between France and Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden recommenced on 16 August 1813 after the expiry of the Truce of Pläswitz. Napoleon was unable to inflict a decisive defeat on the Coalition opposing him. Their strategy of attempting to avoid battle with the main French army, commanded by the Emperor himself, whilst attacking detached French corps was successful.
Napoleon’s strategic situation rapidly deteriorated despite his victory in the largest battle of the early stages of the campaign, at Dresden on 26-27 August, but failed to turn his victory into a rout. His subordinates were defeated at Gross Beeren on 23 August, Katzbach on 26 August, Kulm on 30 August and Dennewitz on 6 September.
The Coalition started the campaign with three armies: the Army of Bohemia under the Austrian Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg; the Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia; and the Army of North Germany under Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and formerly one of Napoleon’s Marshals. Bernadotte’s wife had once been engaged to Napoleon, and her sister was married to the Emperor’s brother Joseph. A fourth, the Army of Poland under the Russian Russian General Count Levin August Bennigsen, was formed during the campaign.
Bennigsen reinforced Schwarzenberg in the south in late September. This allowed Blücher to move north towards Bernadotte, although the two commanders operated independently of each other. Blücher was impetuous and Bernadotte cautious. Schwarzenberg was now to attack towards Leipzig instead of Dresden in order to threaten Napoleon’s lines of communication westwards.
By early October Napoleon had taken up a position near Leipzig with his main army. He had decided to attack north and exploit Blücher and Bernadotte’s lack of co-operation to destroy first one, then the other. He would then turn south to deal with Schwarzenberg.
Napoleon, however, decided on 7 October, after two days consideration, not to concentrate all his forces in the north. He felt that he could not abandon Dresden. It was the capital of Saxony, his last German ally, and it might be an important base in the later operations in the south. However, he first needed all available troops to win in the north. David Chandler says that:
‘This decision was probable the most fateful one of the entire campaign; by disregarding his own principles of concentrating every possible man before battle and of ignoring all secondary (i.e. political) considerations, Napoleon was compromising his chances of success – fatally, as it ultimately proved.’
On 8 October France’s ally Bavaria agreed to change sides in return for a guarantee of her continued sovereignty and independence, although it did not declare war on France on 14 October.
Napoleon moved north, but his tired, hungry and inexperienced conscripts could not march as quickly as his armies had done in the past, allowing the Army of Silesia time to withdraw. Bernadotte wanted to retreat north across the Elbe, but Blücher moved west towards the River Saale, narrowly escaping Napoleon’s army.
Napoleon could have moved north towards Berlin, but would the risk losing Leipzig to Schwarzenberg. He could move south, but Schwarzenberg would withdraw, and Leipzig would be threatened from the north. Napoleon therefore remained in a central position from 10-14 October.
Schwarzenberg was advancing from the south, but slowly: he took two and a half weeks to move 70 miles. Blücher thought that he and Bernadotte should move south to join with Schwarzenberg near Leipzig. Bernadotte was reluctant, so Blücher moved his army on its own, with Bernadotte eventually following. Chandler and Michael Leggiere both argue that Bernadotte’s hesitancy left Napoleon an escape route from Leipzig.
Early on 14 October Napoleon ordered his army to move to Leipzig. As the Emperor entered the city at noon on 14 October he heard the sounds of cannons. This was a large but indecisive cavalry battle at Liebertwolkwitz. The main action would begin on 16 October, and would be decisive.